Monday, 23 September 2013

7 Characteristics of Quality School Culture

I've been thinking a lot about school culture because I know how tough and daunting school can sometimes feel. Rather than thinking about how to make everyone happy, I've been framing it more as how a group of people can come together through genuine shared excitement for how to do great things for kids and learning. Here are some of my "starting points" for a topic that I believe deserves continual inquiry, reflection, and support.

There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to school culture since culture is contextual and personal, and it is important to always remember that school culture is about the quality of one's community and what the community is able to accomplish together.

Therefore an important entry into culture is RESPECT. I believe most people in a school are genuinely interested in doing good things for kids, willingly work hard, and want to experience success at what they do. Respect needs to be expressed for the work of the past, present, and future to build trust and a strong school tradition.

I think it is a good practice to look at change or new directions as "standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before." This acknowledges and respects the work of those in the past. I think it is good practice to be open to learn from everyone who is presently around you, and not have learning be predominately determined by status or power. Finally, I think it is good practice to continue to respect ourselves and others as we try new ideas and fail. Failure is vastly under-rated, and we can all increase our learning exponentially if we become more accepting of failure. All of this is about how we respect ourselves and others, so that we create a strong culture for learning and growth.

A second important component of school culture is a compelling VISION for what the school aspires to be for kids. There are many vision statements that are flat and corporate-sounding. Vision statements may be developed collaboratively or a leader may share a vision that touches the hearts and minds of a school community. In short, the vision should not feel like another routine, but rather should feel like a calling. When members of a school community rally behind a vision, the possibilities are limitless.

Third, it is important to understand how people are genuinely motivated and inspired in their work. A lot of research has emerged on what motivates people to do great work, but Daniel Pink has perhaps done the best job of synthesizing three main themes: AUTONOMY, MASTERY, and PURPOSE.

Once there is a compelling Vision, people want to experience autonomy and self-direction in realizing the vision. If the culture becomes too prescriptive or too tight, then people will experience compliance and frustration. People also need the time, support, and feedback to develop mastery. Jumping on and off different tracks does not allow opportunity for people to develop and experience mastery. Therefore a sense of continuity and progress are essential. People naturally seek purpose in their lives, and purpose emerges when people see how they connect to the whole. Part of purpose is feeling valued. Another part of purpose is experiencing encouragement to create, invent, explore, discover, fail, and to collaborate with other adventurous souls. There is a feeling of exhilaration and worth when members of a school community experience genuine autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

While all of these components are essential to school culture, it is important to also create a school environment where DIVERSITY is pursued and recognized as a strength. Diversity provides different perspectives, and allows opportunity for ideas to mash in ways that create new possibilities. While all schools are challenged by various types of politics and personal ambitions, there needs to be a way for members to proactively monitor and modulate this so that there is a continual "flow" of diverse ideas and talents.

For diversity to flourish, there needs to be trust that it is okay to have a different perspective, to share it openly, and to potentially debate it. Agreements may need to be established, but it is important that everyone feel their "voice" is valued and has been heard. In a culture of fear, voices go underground because of a belief that diverse perspectives are not valued. This then leads to a continual tug-of-war for power by various players. While diversity can be a challenging experience, it is always worth it when viewed through the lens of deeper levels of understanding and willing collaboration for new possibilities. Native Americans refer to "original medicine" as the value of all members of the tribe to collectively bring forward healing and a promising future.

A final component to school culture is CELEBRATION. To be great at anything requires tremendous dedication and effort. Sometimes the struggle to build mastery can feel overwhelming. Sometimes one can have doubts about the vision or one's own part in the vision, and yet one continues forward in good faith. To help a school culture move through complicated and difficult times, it is important to "shine the light" on what is working and to celebrate small and large victories. Taking time to celebrate is also a way for a school to show it genuinely cares about its members and to signal that everyone is in this together. There is also an ebb and flow to the school year, and finding ways to celebrate during "heavy times" or "long stretches" can be a way to re-gain momentum and collegiality.

I believe these seven characteristics of RESPECT, VISION, AUTONOMY, MASTERY, PURPOSE, DIVERSITY, and CELEBRATION are essential to quality school culture. Rather than looking to a person or group of persons as responsible for these characteristics, I believe it is everyone's responsibility to contribute to positive and productive school culture. These characteristics are as much for a community of students as they are for educators and parents. I would encourage everyone to think of a time in their lives when the culture of a particular place was inspiring. Reflect on what made that place and time so special, and start a conversation with those around you as to how you can collectively create a school culture that makes every day an exciting and purposeful adventure.

The journey starts with a single step . . .

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Aligned Impact for Student Learning, Staff Learning, and School Improvement

There is significant and compelling research on what works and doesn't work for student learning, staff learning, and school improvement.

One problem is that these three areas of development are often treated in isolation and are frequently not aligned for optimum performance in schools. Why is there such dramatic separation around conversations about student learning targets and assessment, conversations around needs and expectations for staff learning and performance, and conversations around school improvement benchmarks?

A second problem is that schools often try to serve different and contradictory masters, and therefore it is essential to clarify the main purpose for the school so as to establish unity of purpose and effort. Is a school focused on student learning and growth or is a school focused on achievement and proving itself as one of the leading schools in the world?

To be a leading school in the world requires a school to establish compatible benchmarks with other schools, so as to establish appropriate comparisons. Does this striving to exceed compatible benchmarks of other schools take a school off its main mission of what it values and sees as most important? Does the continual attention on compatible benchmarks start to make a school more like other schools where the contextual uniqueness of a school and perhaps a higher vision become compromised or lost? Is there perhaps greater educational value for "like-minded schools" to create networks and alliances for learning and sharing, rather than competition fields for rankings?

How does a school reconcile a major goal of learning and another major goal of achievement? Some will say that all of this is not an either-or situation, but what really is the priority? Do educators feel divided or confused about their real purpose? Remember when a data point of technology prowess was the number of computers in a school per student? This was simply a data point about inventory, but had no deeper meaning about learning. Comparisons are often full of superficial data points that mean nothing without deeper probing for context and meaning.

A third problem is a lack of genuine inter-communication across stakeholder groups (e.g., students, teachers, administrators, classified staff, parents, Board) so as to create a school culture that has multiple and genuine opportunities for input and deep understanding for the direction of the school. Perhaps the typical structure of how schools are organized is inherently flawed. We have all seen how teachers develop agendas for their classrooms and teams, how administrators engage in identifying agreements on current and future agendas, and how school Boards may have their own agendas on what constitutes a successful school. Meanwhile students and parents have their own ideas about what school should be. The problem with this structure is that it creates agenda competition and distrust across stakeholder groups.

If a school is focused on 1-3 robust and long-term goals that it believes can substantively advance student learning for all students, perhaps there needs to be greater attention to the structure that coherently supports the advancement of these goals. Research would suggest that rather than layers of stakeholders in a school talking among themselves and cementing separate agendas, there is value in an integrated team of students, parents, teachers, administrators, classified staff and Board members who are fully cognizant of the directions of the school and who can engage in meaningful and transparent conversations about implementation from different perspectives.

It is fairly common practice for schools to pull together diverse ad hoc committees for different topics, but building a guiding coalition of diverse stakeholders who are committed to the development and accomplishment of long-term strategic objectives and who find the ways to productively extend the conversation among all other stakeholders is a way to bring a school together for a common purpose and enhance school culture. The execution of this requires strong leadership and facilitation, but the learning, trust, and thoughtful decision-making and actions that can emerge from this process outweigh the challenges.

Sometimes a diverse guiding coalition can be perceived as an "inside or elite group" with everyone else as outsiders. Therefore it is important to also provide avenues for other members of the school community to have a voice and to also be responsible for contributing to thoughtful ideas and school directions. A high functioning school is an inclusive environment that embraces diversity as a strength, rather than creating conditions where people seek each other out because of similar beliefs, similar job roles, or similar backgrounds.

We have all seen examples of different "point persons" being the messengers for different agendas and how these messages can feel like they are being hammered out to everyone in the school. A more integrated and interactive structure potentially offers improved opportunities for a school to truly clarify and communicate the brand of education that it believes is most important and that can have the best success in aligning student learning, staff learning, and school improvement.

A guiding coalition needs to have the interests of the whole school in mind and heart, and not diverge into private agendas. While the concept of a guiding coalition is not a new idea, there are a multitude of examples where there are guiding coalitions in schools and then there are also different individuals or strata that continue to have their private conversations and plans about what will really take place.

While some people would argue that a diverse guiding coalition with different perspectives is not efficient, I would argue that it is not effective to have isolated conversations by different groups of people who will be impacted by how decisions are made, interpreted, and implemented. Stratified structures are like the the story of the blind men who each experience their separate parts of the elephant and believe it is the whole elephant.

If we believe in the concept that "it takes a village to educate a child" and that all of us are responsible for quality education, then it is incumbent on us to figure out how to best build the village (not a bunch of competing villages) and ensure success for ALL of our kids.